Friday, October 07, 2005

Loving the Alien

Capsule reviews of David Bowie's albums.

1. Uncle Arthur: Blaring trumpets announce the story of Arthur, a whipped mama's boy who fails at marriage and runs home to be a kid again. Bouncy.
2. Sell Me a Coat: David needs some protection from the cold, uncaring world.
3. Rubber Band: Twee song about lost love set to an irritating beat.
4. Love You Till Tuesday: Bouncy, early Beatles style number about David's fleeting (yet intense) love. Best Song on the Album.
5. There Is a Happy Land: Bittersweet song about how unfair it is that children grow into adults.
6. We Are Hungry Men: David's first SF song, marred by a light comedy opening and the attempt to be funny. Makes a point about how dictators feel unappreciated.
7. When I Live My Dream: Beautiful orchestrations. David dreams of an ideal love that he hopes will happen.
8. Little Bombardier: Sad story of a man scarred by war and unfit for adulthood who attempts to befriend children.
9. Silly Boy Blue: David loves Tibet.
10. Come and Buy My Toys: Medieval-esque folk ballad warning children of the responsibility that comes with age, begging them to enjoy playing while they can.
11. Join the Gang: Idiotic rambling about Mod kids. Worst Song on the Album.
12. She's Got Medals: Pub story about how gender doesn't matter. David's first song about androgyny.
13. Maid of Bond Street: Story of a Mod girl.
14. Please Mr. Gravedigger: David apologizes, a capella, for killing a little girl so that she wouldn't have to become an adult.

David's first album is an attempt at a folk-Mod fusion, in many ways, and tries to capture the picture of Entertainer rather than Songwriter. Overall, except for the last four songs, it's a very nice album to listen to, even if it isn't especially innovative. Some people I know find it annoying. My Rating: 3 out of 5

released in the US as Man of Words, Man of Music, and later retitled Space Oddity
1. Space Oddity: David's signature work, a beautifully arranged meditation on heroic withdrawal from the world. Best Song on the Album.
2. Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed: Surrealist, bluesy song about how David thinks others see him: "I'm the cream of the Great Utopia dream."
3. Don't Sit Down: Nice, calming 39 seconds of an attempt at a song. When David laughs, it always sounds genuine.
4. Letter to Hermione: Stunning, accomplished examination of a breakup and how it can linger.
5. Cygnet Committee: The death cries of a guru who seen society create peace through force.
6. Janine: Country rock plea to a girl who wants David to open up more, but "I've got things inside my head that even I can't face."
7. An Occasional Dream: David recalls the nice, still moments of a past relationship.
8. Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud: SF story of a thinker from space who is killed for being different; the song itself is killed by ludicrous orchestral flourishes. Worst Song on the Album.
9. God Knows I'm Good: Meditation on the unfairness of the universe.
10. Memory of a Free Festival: Long, long story of the love in the air at a music fest. The alternate version on the RykoDisc release is better, and has Mick Ronson on it.

David's second attempt at stardom fares much better, sounding more like the work of a Songwriter aiming for a unified work. Highly listenable, and without the kind of filler on the previous album. Every song is meant to be a philosophic statement, or convey the impression of one through music. His strength has always been in pushing the limits of genre to convey an emotion, and this is a hint of the glory to come. My Rating: 4 out of 5

1. The Width of a Circle: Experimental, but still rocking, song about a man whose vision of heaven is filled with terror and pain.
2. All the Madmen: David lands in an asylum, but prefers it to the outside world.
3. Black Country Rock: David's T. Rex pastiche.
4. After All: A meditation on the futility of becoming an adult.
5. Running Gun Blues: A former soldier returns to society but finds himself unable to stop killing.
6. Saviour Machine: Dark song about a computer created to run the world, but finds itself wanting to destroy the human race for building it in the first place.
7. She Shook Me Cold: David roams the streets using girls and throwing them aside, but he finally meets his match. Worst Song on the Album.
8. The Man Who Sold the World: David runs into a person from beyond who says hello. Best Song on the Album.
9. The Supermen: Old gods still look at us from outside, wanting back in.

Three albums in, and David's themes are all clear. There is a lot about gods and aliens and how they are mystically connected, as well as a mourning of the loss of childhood. Coupled with this is an almost crippling agoraphobia that comes from a distrust of people's capabilities and a wish that everything could be ignored--and even a sense that the forces that govern the universe are sadistic at worst, uncaring at best. David uses a lot of science fiction imagery on this album.Musically, David is starting off in a new direction, leaving his folk leanings behind and going into darker territory in arrangement. There's a bit of T. Rex influence here, too. My Rating: 3 out of 5

1. Changes: Indeed. David warns that he's pulling an about-face, and his future career will be marked by sudden changes of persona and method.
2. Oh! You Pretty Things: Messengers from the sky are coming to evolve our children, man.
3. Eight Line Poem: A short look at the Waste Lands.
4. Life On Mars?: Beautiful, transcendent piece that looks at a moment in the destruction of the current societal norms. Sounds heady, but quite lovely. Best Song on the Album.
5. Kooks: Whimsical little ode to David's newborn son, Zowie.
6. Quicksand: David deconstructs his own personality, admits he is pulled in every direction and can't make up his mind about where to go.
7. Fill Your Heart: David covers a nifty little Paul Williams flower ballad. Nice.
8. Andy Warhol: David takes back his former worship of Andy, exposing him as a charlatan.
9. Song for Bob Dylan: David urges Robert Zimmerman to return to music.
10. Queen Bitch: A Velvet Underground pastiche, but an amazingly good one. Rocks harder than anything David's done up to this point.
11. The Bewlay Brothers: Old gods linger on this planet and mourn their own deaths. Stunning.

This album takes David's penchant for self-pitying introspection and makes it beautiful. Withdrawl is a big theme for Bowie, and this album heightens it, almost celebrating it at the same time he mourns it. One of the most beautiful albums of all time. My Rating: 5 out of 5

1. Five Years: Ziggy desperately warns us all that the end is coming, so we'd best not mope around. For the rest of the album, we are on the verge of the world's ending.
2. Soul Love: Ziggy examines different types of love, but declares that "All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving." Groovy message.
3. Moonage Daydream: Funky jive about kids with nothing to do.
4. Starman: A hopeful message from a higher intelligence communicates directly to the kids: "Let all the children boogie." Best Song on the Album.
5. It Ain't Easy: David covers Ron Davies. Not bad, exactly, but it feels out of place.
6. Lady Stardust: A beautiful ode to Marc Bolan and glam rock.
7. Star: David wants to get out his message -- as a rock star!
8. Hang Onto Yourself: Ziggy finds that fame is not as rewarding as he had hoped.
9. Ziggy Stardust: Ziggy "sucked up into his mind" and had to be taken down by his own fans.
10. Suffragette City: Ziggy decides it's time to clean up his act.
11. Rock 'n' Roll Suicide: Ziggy, homeless and with only one fan left, reflects that fame is fleeting, the world is doomed, but it's best not to worry. Beautiful, gorgeous, uplifting song.

This is Bowie's masterpiece, a glam rock opera that tells a complete story at the same time that it conveys emotions through impressionistic tones. David never tells you he's depressed, he shows you how it feels. This high sci fi album is one that deserves to be listened to, over and over again, as the back cover suggests, at maximum volume. It never fails to reward the listener. Like Hunk Dory before it, there's not a clunker on it, and the emotional depth is even stronger on this one. Bowie's major themes--alienation, messages from space/gods, withdrawal for the sake of survival, the inability to define and recognize love, art for art's sake, the wide division between the generations--all flourish here in an astoundingly good musical setting. My Rating: 5 out of 5

1. Watch That Man: One of the great album intros, in which David warns us that what we are about to see and hear may not be him, or it may describe him perfectly. A sort of sequel to/continuation of "Changes."
2. Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?): Ziggy takes us (with amazing Mike Garson piano) to the time before each World War, wondering if we're about to see it again.
3. Drive-In Saturday: One of David's most gorgeous songs. Ziggy imagines a future where people have forgotten how to have sex, and the knowledge is doled out by specialists who remember their own humanity. Best Song on the Album.
4. Panic in Detroit: Ziggy tells the story of a revolutionary who committed suicide.
5. Cracked Actor: The story of a former star who wants you to "give me your head." A meditation on fading fame with a great guitar by Mick Ronson.
6. Time: Ziggy worries that age and drugs will take him too early. Excellent piano.
7. The Prettiest Star: Ziggy remember a past lover with fondness.
8. Let's Spend the Night Together: Weird, sort-of-fun (but a little forced), irrelevant cover of the Stones.
9. The Jean Genie: Bowie gives a dirty salute to Jean Genet and Iggy Pop.
10. Lady Grinning Soul: Beautiful, dark song about a woman who makes boys into men. Interesting trivia: this song is about Claudia Linnear, the soul singer that Mick Jagger wrote "Brown Sugar" about.

A perfect follow-up to Ziggy Stardust, this album takes the concept and themes and somehow makes them even more nihilistic. The remembrance of love sounds more hollow than ever, as if David were trying to convince himself in retrospect that it meant something once, and the obsession with being a star in both the fame and celestial sense is heightened. This is the perfect cap to the Ziggy era that David is still most identified with. My Rating: 5 out of 5

PIN UPS (1973)
Glam rock covers of classic rock tunes (original artists in parentheses).
1. Rosalyn (The Pretty Things): Nice opener, glammed out.
2. Here Comes the Night (Them): David gives a snarling, strained cover of Van Morrison's tune.
3. I Wish You Would (The Yardbirds): Mick Ronson gives Eric Clapton a run for his money on the ax.
4. See Emily Play (Pink Floyd): It's hard to match Barrett-era Floyd for psychedelic power, but this comes very, very close.
5. Everything's Alright (The Mojos): It's alright.
6. I Can't Explain (The Who): Pretty fun, but not a scratch on the original Who tune.
7. Friday on My Mind (The Easybeats): Bouncy and fun, would've been a better opener.
8. Sorrow (The Merseys): Nicely crooned, with good violin backing. Unlike a lot of these covers, it's clean to the sound and well thought-out. Best Song on the Album.
9. Don't Bring Me Down (The Pretty Things): Okay. Worst Song on the Album.
10. Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds): I'm not a fan of the original, either.
11. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (The Who): David has a lot of fun with this one, which is almost as good as the original.
12. Where Have All the Good Times Gone (The Kinks): Perfect closer, not as good as the Kinks, but it could have easily fit in on Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane.

In inauspicious ending to David's Ziggy era, and also (sadly) his last album with Mick Ronson doing the guitar and arrangements. While this doesn't really add much to the preceding albums, David and the Spiders craft an album that, in some respects, sounds like an album Ziggy himself might have made (the idea that they're all disrespectful glam covers of classic rock tunes seems to be David poking holes in the Ziggy exterior). However, this is one for fans only, as it's neither groundbreaking nor extremely enjoyable. My Rating: 2 out of 5

1. Future Legend: A brief intro setting the stage--a hollowed-out world of pain and teenage kicks.
2. Diamond Dogs: David affects a Mick Jagger swagger as he places us in this 1984-inspired world. He teases us, "It's just another future song, lonely little kitsch," but also warns us, "There's gonna be sorrow, try to wake up tomorrow."
3. Sweet Thing: A masterful character piece, immersing us in this world to heavy orchestrations and exquisite saxophone. Necessarily overdramatic.
4. Candidate: The dark bridge of the above song (tracks 3-5 are one connected song, divided into three tracks, making it frustratingly impossible to put on a CD-R).
5. Sweet Thing (reprise): The finale. The enitre song presents a world of tomorrow where teenagers look for sex, cannibals prey on humankind for their jewelry, and the entirety of government has collapsed. Best Song on the Album (tracks 3-5).
6. Rebel Rebel: The classic rock anthem of gender neutrality, partying, and carefree drugs.
7. Rock 'n' Roll with Me: The rest of the album is culled from an attempt to make 1984 into a musical. Therefore, this is Winston Smith singing, not David (or Halloween Jack, his character on the first half). Here, Winston finds love and it sets his heart free.
8. We Are the Dead: Wait, he isn't. Winston goes back to his paranoia, wondering if he and his lover aren't marked for "re-education."
9. 1984: Dark funk as Winston's mind explodes.
10. Big Brother: Even as everyone dances around Big Brother in worship, he worries that one day he'll be found out. In a way, a sequel to "Saviour Machine" (from Man Who Sold the World).
11. Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family: Sped up white noise funk that serves as a dervish tail on the previous song, ending with one cry of pain being repeated over and over.

Though we mourn the loss of Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, and Woody Woodmansey from the previous albums, David has kept dissonant pianist Mike Garson and is playing the guitar himself. To Ziggy's makeup, red glam hair, and sharp guitar, David adds the eyepatch, revealing his sexiest look ever, as a rock 'n' roll pirate. The album is an overlooked gem, one often accused of being in disunity. But that very quality adds to the impression of nihilistic futurism that is being stretched to its very limits here, providing us with David's darkest album ever. An accomplished listening experience, always rich and rewarding, without a single piece of filler. It's practically a song cycle. My Rating: 5 out of 5

1. Young Americans: One of the greatest songs of all time, a perfect opener--unfortunate, because the album never gets better from here. David looks at America, the land of promise, and is vaguely dispirited. Best Song on the Album.
2. Win: David begs back-up singer Ava Cherry to love him.
3. Fascination: David obsesses with sex (Luther Vandross sings back-up).
4. Right: A lush ride of hunger and dance. Worst Song on the Album.
5. Somebody Up There Likes Me: David marvels at his luck.
6. Across the Universe: David covers the Beatles (with John singing back-up). Feels like the obligatory SF song on the album.
7. Can You Hear Me: David still loves Ava Cherry, but worries she doesn't believe him.
8. Fame: Bowie and Lennon again, examining the emptiness of being a celebrity.I

It's a good attempt at white soul, but I honestly feel this album is as overrated as Diamond Dogs is underrated. David is hardly the first artist to dress up black music and sell it to white audiences, but the album does have an innovative style that sort of presages disco. As usual, David is at the forefront of popular musical styles. My Rating: 3 out of 5

1. Station to Station: David's exciting rock epic about withdrawal, paranoia, celebration, memories of childhood, austerity, the chance of (empty) love, and philosophic ruminations. Best Song on the Album.
2. Golden Years: David stops remembering the past and looking to the future, and starts living in the moment.
3. Word on a Wing: David justifies his prayer.
4. TVC 15: A TV eats David's girlfriend, but he won't rescue her if it means smashing his set.
5. Stay: David doesn't get this whole love thing.
6. Wild Is the Wind: David covers a heartbreaking tune about the longing and passion of love.

This album seems short at a glance, but only one of the songs checks in at under five minutes. David is going through a lot this time around, his usual withdrawal breaking over into total paranoia. After the nihilism of Diamond Dogs and the cynical emptiness of Young Americans, David has stepped over the edge and stopped caring about everything. This gives the album an edge of hollowness, which may be why it shakes so many people off, but the richness of the music somehow offsets it. This is an incredibly good album. My Rating: 4 out of 5

LOW (1977)
1. Speed of Life: Instrumental opener that simulates a heartbeat with a lot of fuzz guitar interference.
2. Breaking Glass: David takes out his own self-loathing.
3. What in the World: David and Iggy Pop craft a song about love and fear that almost be called techno punk. Best Song on the Album.
4. Sound and Vision: David and Eno wish for inspiration while doing nothing to find it.
5. Always Crashing in the Same Car: David laments that he keeps making the same mistakes.
6. Be My Wife: David wants love, no matter how insincere it sounds.
7. A New Career in a New Town: Instrumental closer that slows the heartbeat; has David found what he wants?
8. Warszawa: Tone poem mainly composed by Eno.
9. Art Decade: Immersion in a tone poem of angriness.
10. Weeping Wall: Musically simulated weeping and sadness based on "Scarborough Fair."
11. Subterraneans: A dark instrumental ponderance of totalitarianism.

Bowie has in the past called tracks 1-7 "self-pitying crap." Tracks 8-11 are experimental, instrumental pieces. On a personal level, though I find 8-11 interesting, I listen to 1-7 much, much more--they're fun and they rock. The whole album is Bowie (and Eno, who produced the album) celebrating paranoid withdrawal, even rewarding it. But the instrumental tracks offer a balance, being more meditative and deeper. David was fighting demons here. My Rating: 4 out of 5

"HEROES" (1977)
1. Beauty and the Beast: David knows the irresistible attraction of dichotomies (and shredding guitars).
2. Joe the Lion: David laughs off Low's withdrawal and urges us to live our lives fully, pointing out that "The day laughs in your face."
3. "Heroes": David looks at the urgent immediacy of love in a violent world. Best Song on the Album.
4. Sons of the Silent Age: David looks at the ancient beings he once revered, and exposes their sadness, robbing them of their power.
5. Blackout: David comments on our overreliance on technology and his own drug-induced haze.
6. V-2 Schneider: A tribute to Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider.
7. Sense of Doubt: David does Schoenberg-esque dissonant foreboding.
8. Moss Garden: David gives the koto a workout.
9. Neukoln: David's Turkish influence appears.
10. The Secret Life of Arabia: David announces that, at 30, he's changed once again, this time into a fully realized human being.

David and Eno strike again, but this time with a sense of movement and direction. Where Low was withdrawn and timid, "Heroes" is fast-moving and open. David's withdrawal has been exposed as a sham, the messages from space are rubbish, and the most important things are life, love, and (in a complete reversal) emotional contact with other humans. A new consciousness has emerged through the two albums. Tracks 6-9 are instrumental experiments, but these are less immersing and more obvious experiments in technique. This album marks the final break with the David we've known until now, and promises new things to come. My Rating: 4 out of 5

LODGER (1979)
1. Fantastic Voyage: David asks for world leaders to calm down and consider their feelings before they blow the world up.
2. African Night Flight: David gives his mouth a workout in a playful piece of adventure.
3. Move On: David loves travel, but hates tourism. The song is actually "All the Young Dudes" played backward.
4. Yassassin: David's Turkish influence reappears as he contemplates the easy life.
5. Red Sails: David rocks like a pirate.
6. D.J.: David renounces his role as a trendsetter.
7. Look Back in Anger: David looks back on his life and doesn't regret, even when he's told he should.
8. Boys Keep Swinging: David tweaks the sexes by sarcastically exposing male stereotypes as man drag. Features an amazing, ear-shredding guitar solo by Adrian Belew. Best Song on the Album.
9. Repetition: A sad look at spousal abuse and dissatisfied expectations.
10. Red Money: David rewrites "Sister Midnight."

The last of the so-called "Eno Trilogy," this album is unlike the previous two in sound and thematic subject. This is David's "world album," as it were, examining himself in the context of a world community and experimenting with new sounds. Eno was not thrilled with the album and Bowie's return to conventional song structure, but this album rocks pretty hard and it isn't easy to make a case for the album not living up to itself. Bowie had worked with Robert Fripp on the previous album, and the new guitarist here is Adrian Belew; he has an excellent ear for bold guitarwork, as his solo and King Crimson work make clear. In his personal life, David has gone through the drugs, the disaffection, and the disillusionment, and emerged forth on the other side. From Low, through "Heroes", and up to Lodger, the withdrawal has gone from paranoia to anger to a new sense of inclusion. David feels that he can be a part of the world now. Emotional connections flow through the album, one of his most organic--it never feels surgical or scientific. There is none of the sense of removal that was on David's previous records. He has finally emerged a fully-formed human being. My Rating: 5 out of 5

1. It's No Game (Part 1): David screams at us to pay attention the the political oppression going on in the world (interestingly, it also plays like "Watch That Man," only slower).
2. Up the Hill Backwards: David urges us to work against the forces of complacency.
3. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): David lashes out at the current generation of New Romantics, who have ripped off not only his sound, but the disaffection he now denounces.
4. Ashes to Ashes: Major Tom comes back, only for his ultimate escape to be made pathetic, not triumphant, as David completely exposes his pretensions. Best Song on the Album.
5. Fashion: David uses fashion as a metaphor for politics, and dance as a metaphor for resistance, all to an excellent dance beat.
6. Teenage Wildlife: David scathes the young punks for preferring posturing instead of taking a stand, purposely transmuting "'Heroes'" in the process.
7. Scream Like a Baby: David's still got issues, as this SF warning song against forced conformity points out.
8. Kingdom Come: Bowie covers Tom Verlaine.
9. Because You're Young: David and guest guitarist Pete Townshend mourn the passing of innocence.
10. It's No Game (Part 2): A much calmer David warns us of oppression, but tries to deal with it realistically.

An album that is nothing short of breathtaking. Though there is some music that feels a little like filler ("Kingdom Come" and "Because You're Young" could probably be flipped through), the album forms a cohesive whole on Bowie's worldview. Yes, people still have yet to realize the danger out there and do anything they can about it, but David can filter it more easily now and fit in with society at large (and on his own terms, at that). Scary Monsters marks the culmination of a 13-album output that has been extraordinary. Taken as a whole, from the second album called David Bowie to this one, a clear line of expression, growth, and experimentation can be drawn. It is, perhaps, the most sustained inner dialogue ever recorded. My Rating: 5 out of 5

LET'S DANCE (1983)
1. Modern Love: David's lyrically irrelevant but musically transcendent ode to love. Best Song on the Album.
2. China Girl: David covers his and Iggy Pop's 1977 song about communist punk (the Pop version is better).
3. Let's Dance: David sings seductively about imperialism.
4. Without You: David professes love to no one in particular.
5. Ricochet: David looks at the unhappy world and feels ashamed.
6. Criminal World: David covers Metro, for some reason.
7. Cat People (Putting Out the Fire): Theme song for the 1982 movie Cat People gives Bowie the chance to finally work with Giorgio Moroder on a song about hunger and wild night activities.
8. Shake It: Blatant attempt to ape the New Romantic style Bowie had been a major influence on. Worst Song on the Album.

After spending the seventies grappling to find himself, Bowie's found himself. And he doesn't really have anything interesting to sing about anymore. Not that this isn't a great album, it certainly is, and the production by Bowie and Nile Rodgers is excellent. But it's really just a dance album (albeit a superior one), and not as interesting as his other works. Certainly the first three songs are classics, and hearing Bowie and Moroder together is amazing, but overall it's not as strong as Scary Monsters. My Rating: 4 out of 5

TONIGHT (1984)
1. Loving the Alien: David links religion with SF, alienation with prayer, and uses exotic imagery in a miniature epic about the nature of belief.
2. Don't Look Down: David covers the Stooges with a reggae beat.
3. God Only Knows: David covers the most beautiful song ever written (by Brian Wilson) with pretty good results (but nowhere near the original).
4. Tonight: David covers a song he wrote for Lust for Life; he and Tina Turner sound great together despite more reggae punk.
5. Neighbourhood Threat: David covers another Lust for Life song, this time with way eighties urgency.
6. Blue Jean: David thrills over a new lover, but wonders if he can trust her. Best Song on the Album.
7. Tumble and Twirl: A frankly irritating song co-written with Iggy Pop. Worst Song on the Album.
8. I Keep Forgettin': David gamely tries to breathe new life into a Leiber-Stoller classic.
9. Dancing with the Big Boys: Another Iggy Pop song, this time with the Nude & Rude one singing along. The song is supposed to be about the hypocrisy of society, but tends to irritate.

In 1977, David produced two classic albums for his down-and-out friend Iggy Pop (Lust for Life and The Idiot). On Let's Dance, David covered "China Girl" from The Idiot. This time, he shakes down the other album. Why all the covers? 5 of the 9 songs are direct covers, and 2 more are written with Iggy Pop, leaving only 2 genuine Bowie compositions here (unsurprisingly, the two best songs on the album). For some reason, David completely rejects his previous dance pop album and crafts himself in a new wave mode, working with Hugh Padgham, the producer of Genesis and the Police (two of the best bands of the post-punk/post-prog era). And the album sounds fine, it's just that the majority of the songs themselves are so overwhelmingly dull that it's hard to care. The album seems to be about nothing more than keeping Bowie's hand in and keeping Iggy financially solvent (a noble cause, to be sure). My Rating: 3 out of 5

1. Day-In Day-Out: David observes a poor woman.
2. Time Will Crawl: David sees society as less welcoming than it once was; sort of a 40-year-old's version of "All the Young Dudes."
3. Beat of Your Drums: Another cold love song, way overproduced.
4. Never Let Me Down: David has a woman to live for.
5. Zeroes: Nothing but tired teenage imagery and faux-energy.
6. Glass Spider: Weird attempt at dark 1984-style dystopian SF, but out of place on this album and, despite the brief excitement of something different, frankly it goes nowhere.
7. Shining Star (Makin' My Love): More vain attempts to write a teen anthem, with an embarrassing mid-song rap by Mickey Rourke. The lyrics feel like they were written in 1967.
8. New York's in Love: David's tiresome ode to New York and women.
9. '87 and Cry: Pure filler.
10. Bang Bang: By this time, you realize you really should have turned the album off around track 7. If you made it past "Glass Spider," of course.

Other than featuring Peter Frampton on lead guitar, there's nothing very interesting about this album. Despite some game attempts ("Day-In Day-Out" and "Time Will Crawl"), there is no best song on the album. The worst is impossible to judge, as the album feels like complete filler. If Tonight had problems, Never Let Me Down shows a complete breakdown in David's ability to make interesting music. David's involvement feels limited, too, as if someone recorded a bunch of his old songs and he went in on a Saturday and recorded all his vocals and proclaimed it finished. From any other artist, this would be a disappointment and the end of a career. From David Bowie, it's a high crime against his own reputation. Perhaps that was the point; the title is ironic since, 17 albums in, Bowie's gone and let us all down. My Rating: 1 out of 5

This was the first album by David Bowie's short-lived band, Tin Machine. Interestingly, when EMI remastered Bowie's album a couple of years ago, they listed it as David Bowie album. The band was made up of Bowie, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, and brothers Hunt and Tony Sales.
1. Heaven's in Here: David acknowledges that love, tragedy, and humanity can be epic and godlike.
2. Tin Machine: David declares that his band can do anything.
3. Prisoner of Love: Being a prisoner of love ain't so bad, especially if experimental guitar is involved.
4. Crack City: David angrily exposes the corruption of the old to the waiting young.
5. I Can't Read: David acknowledges that fame and money can be hollow.
6. Under the God: David furiously sees America as a hive of Nazis, right-wingers, violence, drugs, and guns. Excellent hard rock with an art twist. Best Song on the Album.
7. Amazing: David wants to love someone enough to be there for her.
8. Working Class Hero: A techno-funk cover of John Lennon.
9. Bus Stop: David acknowledges the power of faith, but isn't so sure about religion.
10. Pretty Thing: David's up for some hard, powerful, rock-style fucking.
11. Video Crime: David examines how lust for money turns television into violence. Worst Song on the Album.
12. Run: The love of a woman sets David on a sure course.
13. Sacrifice Yourself: David urges us to confront life and make it give us what we want.
14. Baby Can Dance: For David, love is an amusement park punctuated by weird sound flourishes.

By the late eighties, David realized his last 2 albums had been hollow, empty mistakes. Hooking up with art guitarist Reeves Gabrels in 1988, David decided to start a band and experiment with something totally different. The resulting band, Tin Machine, was as divisive as it was bold. It pissed off a lot of people, to be sure (it can easily be seen as Bowie's Wings), but at the same time, it revitalized Bowie's hands-on approach to music. It was a huge risk, and Bowie took it in order to end his global superstar status. He purposely burned it out in order to turn himself back into a creative artist; by dismissing his last 3 albums musically, he was able to shrug off the weight of his commercial success. Despite all of the talk about a democratic band, it's pretty obvious David is in charge here. He wrote or co-wrote every song on the album except "Working Class Hero." Still, this is a new step for Bowie; it takes bands like Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Dead Kennedys, mixes them in a blender, and creates a sound that not only celebrates the revival in American garage rock, but looks straight ahead to grunge. While the Sales brothers (who, incidentally, played on Lust for Life and The Idiot) bring in a rhythm from the early sixties rock sound, Gabrels experiments with guitar sounds, and Bowie ties it together with his art rock sensibilities. Consistently underrated, this is the album that threw out the commercial, hackneyed, hollow Bowie and made him exciting again. My Rating: 4 out of 5

1. Baby Universal: David revisits his past futurist self, wondering if the human race should be replaced.
2. One Shot: David would give up all of civilization's comforts for love.
3. You Belong in Rock & Roll: David frankly bores the fuck out of the audience.
4. If There Is Something: A so-so cover of Roxy Music.
5. Amlapura: David romanticizes the sea, the East, and exotic adventures to Reeves Gabrels's prettiest-ever guitar. Best Song on the Album.
6. Betty Wrong: More generic love-proclaiming from David.
7. You Can't Talk: Frankly, a mess.
8. Stateside: Hunt does some bland, generic blues experimentation. Worst Song on the Album.
9. Shopping for Girls: David examines the hollowness of the commercialist youth.
10. A Big Hurt: David screams over an unfulfilling relationship with a woman he calls "my roommate from hell."
11. Sorry: Hunt's beautiful apology to a former lover; as good as "Stateside" is awful.
12. Goodbye Mr. Ed: David wistfully celebrates the art/pop fusion of Manhattan.

As good as the first album is, this second and final Tin Machine offering is at once more refined and less interesting. Though the band opened up a little more (David cedes two vocal outings to Hunt Sales), David already sounds bored. Frankly, you could take the few really good songs on this album and mix them into Tin Machine and make one nearly great one. It's not terrible, just pointless and detached. Bowie's backing vocals on "Stateside" sound so hollow and disinterested it isn't even funny. This album, like the previous, was produced by the band with Tim Palmer. It is indicative of Bowie's trepidation here that Hugh Padgham, producer of Tonight as well as several classic Police and "singles-era" Genesis albums, to do some arrangements. The band collapsed soon after this album was released; the album didn't sell, and four strong personalities couldn't work together without constant irritation. My Rating: 2 out of 5

1. The Wedding: Instrumental opener punctuated by pretty wedding bells, bringing us into the album.
2. You've Been Around: David professes that his new love has changed him.
3. I Feel Free: Mick Ronson re-joins Bowie for the first time in 20 years to give the classic Jeff Beck solo a workout on this cover of the classic Yardbirds tune (sadly, Ronno died of cancer soon after).
4. Black Tie White Noise: David and Al B! Sure unite races despite society's stereotypes, preoccupation with violence, racial assumptions, and fascist divisions in an awesome jazz/funk beat. Best Song on the Album.
5. Jump They Say: David warns us that listening to a crowd can only lead to destruction.
6. Nite Flights: Bowie covers Scott Walker, one of his chief influences.
7. Pallas Athena: Sonic layering pushes down with the force of God while David's saxophone and his son Lester's trumpet answer one another.
8. Miracle Goodnight: The world looks epic and exciting to a man in love.
9. Don't Let Me Down & Down: David covers a Mauritanian singer named Tahra--the song was one of Iman's favorites, which Bowie reworked at her behest.
10. Looking for Lester: Instrumental jazz tone poem provides a workout for Lester's trumpet.
11. I Know It's Gonna Happen Some Day: David covers Morrissey.
12. The Wedding Song: Answering the first track, David captures the moment he first saw Iman at their wedding with a nervous excitment and a hopeful finality.

Ditching Tin Machine (but still collaborating with Reeves Gabrels), Bowie and Nile Rodgers manage to produce Bowie's most underrated album. Conceived as both a wedding present to Iman and a step into a new musical direction, Bowie was back to his old tricks: shunning commercialism in order to challenge the industry with sounds and techniques he felt were missing. David is in top form, but rather than sounding pretentious, he takes his whole life up to this point and discovers himself in the here and now. Working musically with his son, letting the past go, and praising the energy his loving marriage with Iman has given him, David has become an album artist again. And by producing an album that fuses jazz, funk, techno, and Eastern horns, David consciously (having married a black woman) tries to span and blur racial lines at the same time--it would have been disingenuous not to. Interestingly, one of the insert photos has been darkened so much that he looks like a black man. An amazing album, shame it's been forgotten. My Rating: 5 out of 5

1. Buddha of Suburbia: David remembers a childhood of nervous expectation, religious confusion, and artistic identity crises. Best Song on the Album.
2. Sex and the Church: David ruminates on religion to an ambient-funk beat that somehow never gets old.
3. South Horizon: Understated jazz workout with an excellent Mike Garson piano workout.
4. The Mysteries: Beautiful keyboard-oriented tone poem.
5. Bleed Like a Craze, Dad: Vital technofunk that excites without being too clublike.
6. Strangers When We Meet: David loves the exciting possibility of love's first meeting; one of his most beautiful songs ever.
7. Dead Against It: David ponders the meaninglessness of words with an energetic, vibrant song.
8. Untitled No. 1: David ponders the meaninglessness of sex.
9. Ian Fish, U.K. Heir: Murky instrumental full of dark possibilities.
10. Buddha of Suburbia: The first track reprised, only with more finality and Lenny Kravitz on guitar.

With few exceptions, every instrument on this album is played by David or his co-producer, Erdal Kizilcay (the return of Mike Garson after nearly two decades is most welcome). Kizilcay worked on Never Let Me Down; this album proves that their previous collaboration was torn apart by commercial desires. This is the most vital album David had done since Scary Monsters, but as the re-worked soundtrack to a BBC miniseries, this proper album was doomed when it was marketed as merely a soundtrack. David was clearly excited here--for a change, he wrote every song on the album, and then recorded it in less than one week. "Buddha of Suburbia" and "Strangers When We Meet" are two of the greatest songs he's ever written. Bowie revisited and reunited a lot of his earlier sensibilities with his current direction (in "Buddha of Suburbia" he repeats his cadence "ouvre le chein" from his 1971 song "All the Madmen"). After a decade or so of spinning gears and false starts, Bowie was inch-close to finding his new way. My Rating: 5 out of 5

OUTSIDE (1995)
Outside tells a story that is hard to penetrate, and I don't want to spend the amount of space to go into it. Instead, let's just make summary judgments.
1. Leon Takes Us Outside: Musical stage-setting.
2. Outside: Dark stuff, reminiscent of Labyrinth, with excellent use of bongos.
3. The Heart's Filthy Lesson: Hard, driving, dissonant, disjointed, unrelenting look over the abyss of death. Best Song on the Album.
4. A Small Plot of Land: Mostly instrumental jazz improv.
5. Segue: Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)
6. Hallo Spaceboy: Fantastic drums that refuse to let go.
7. The Motel: Seven minutes of fits and false starts, though the second half is dreamy and hard to ignore. Best lyric: "There is no hell like an old hell."
8. I Have Not Been to Oxford Town: Fun club dance pop.
9. No Control: Overriding dark and assertions, sounds like Siouxsie and the Banshees or even Joy Division.
10. Segue: Algeria Touchshriek
11. The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty): Gets tired, but excellent piano.
12. Segue: Ramona A. Stone/I Am with Name
13. Wishful Beginnings: Hard to take. Worst Song on the Album.
14. We Prick You: Excellent rock music (for those of you who are younger and wonder what rock music sounds like--they don't play it on the MTV).
15. Segue: Nathan Adler
16. I'm Deranged: Interesting layering and keyboards.
17. Thru' These Architects Eyes: Sounds like the closer; lush orchestration, a little lighter.
18. Segue: Nathan Adler
19. Strangers When We Meet: Another version of a very beautiful song.

Bowie casts off high production values in favor of alt rock starkness and art-pretension. The story is about a detective on the eve of the millennium solving an "art crime," making the album about aesthetic values despite seeming to eschew those values. This makes the album a little cold, and has consequently alienated a lot of listeners who feel like they don't "get" the story. Meanwhile, Bowie parallels this art crime by also committing it against himself, cannibalizing and destroying his own music the same way he did on Scary Monsters in 1980. This is another purge. Eno joined Bowie once again on the production, and the album was recorded "jam" style in a week, with a list of musicians that included Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Erdal Kizilcay, and Carlos Alomar: Bowie is revisiting every past musical era to make sense out of his new direction. He mixes his style periods, takes the best of himself, guts it all, and reexamines it with ferocious glee. The landscape of the album is a place of crime, decapitation, murder, austerity, delicacy, savageness, flesh, blood, gore, performance art, carnival, darkness, impossible beauty, and fleeting feelings of hope. If the album has an obstacle, it's that it may run too long. The music is so unrelenting that at times it can feel like the music is too overbearing. Bowie himself estimates that the recording session yielded 50 to 100 hours of music, of which this album features around 70 minutes. The sequel album, Contamination, was finally put on schedule for 2004, but has been delayed indefinitely. This album, then, sits alone in Bowie's catalog as an odd piece, certainly radical and groundbreaking, but also off-putting and cold. My Rating: 4 out of 5

1. Little Wonder: Nonsensical lyrics, but thunders out of the gate and is impossible to stop listening to.
2. Looking for Satellites: David thinks that because of commercial distractions "there's nothing in our eyes."
3. Battle for Britain (The Letter): David admits he's never been anything real, and asks for forgiveness.
4. Seven Years in Tibet: David meditates on the eternal qualities of Buddhism and mountains.
5. Dead Man Walking: David reuses the riff from "The Supermen" to remember his wild, idealistic youth, and puts aside his fear of future dystopia and love for the alien. Best Song on the Album.
6. Telling Lies: David puts on the persona of one of the authoritarian liars he used to distrust.
7. The Last Thing You Should Do: David makes youthful declarations of love sound hollow.
8. I'm Afraid of Americans: An outtake from Outside that appeared on a different form on the Showgirls soundtrack. David looks at the average disaffected American youth with fear and trepidation.
9. Law (Earthlings on Fire): A philosophical David admits that certainty is impossible.

David proudly proclaims himself a part of the new Britpop movement, choosing to participate rather than rest on his laurels. On the cover of the album, he wears a Union Jack symbol in a bid for continued, Anglocentric vitality. This is lighter than Outside, but still influenced by the same types of artists. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Bowie--alone of most major artists from the seventies--refused to simply repeat himself to a crowd of forty-year-old fans who only wanted to hear "Changes" over and over again. He listened to new music, and took as influences the Cure, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, and Moby, among others. This album shows that Bowie not only heard that music, he understood it well. He knew what made it work and what feelings it was trying to convey. This is spiky, powerful, aggressive jungle pop, techno-oriented and industrial-influenced. Still working with Reeves Gabrels and now programmer Mark Plati, this was the first album Bowie produced alone since 1974's Diamond Dogs.Thematically, Bowie is reassessing himself once again. Taking all of his old preoccupations--aliens, drugs, Buddhism, the middle class, his fear of the crowd, performance art, illusionism, fear of travel and loathing of tourism, psychotic withdrawal, wisdom coming from space--and examining them from the perspective of an older man. He may not be wiser now, but he does have some different views. At 50, Bowie was ridiculed for trying too hard. What do they know? My Rating: 5 out of 5

...hours (1999)
1. Thursday's Child: David is full of woe (Wednesday's Child), but wishes he was Thursday's Child (far to go); or he would, if he didn't have his love to balance him out.
2. Something in the Air: David feels something coming, and has spent too much time fascinated with himself to understand what it is.
3. Survive: David curses himself for not being a better man, though he's surprisingly okay with it. Best Song on the Album.
4. If I'm Dreaming My Life: David cannot remember if his experiences are real.
5. Seven: Delicately beautiful song about having no regrets for a self-destructive past.
6. What's Really Happening?: David thinks people are becoming short-lived machines.
7. The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell: David revisits the immediacy of youth and finds it confusing, supposing that the young who have no direction are doomed by their lifestyles.
8. New Angels of Promise: Theme song for the Omikron video game.
9. Brilliant Adventure: David works out his koto for two minutes; beautiful.
10. The Dreamers: The Last of the Dreamers has nothing left to stimulate him, but he loves the simple things.

Bowie played most of the instruments on the album, and co-wrote every song with Reeves Gabrels, with whom he co-produced this, their last effort together (to date). Mark Plati mixed again, but this album is much more subdued and quiet than Earthling or Outside. This is something surprising from David: a comfortable acceptance of middle age and a rejection of youthful attitudes toward experience. He reflects on his own youth, and surmises that these days he is happy with just being alive and being in love. The production is relatively sparse (given the layering of the last two albums), but lovely and sublime. A quiet reflection that is more than welcome. My Rating: 5 out of 5

HEATHEN (2002)
1. Sunday: "The beginning of an end." Another David opener warning the listener that this is not like the last go ‘round.
2. Cactus: David covers the Pixies.
3. Slip Away: David makes a point of holding on to his childhood memories. Originally meant to be on the album Toy. Best Song on the Album.
4. Slow Burn: David feels the public eye on him, but considers it the price of being an artist. Features Pete Townshend on guitar.
5. Afraid: Aging gets David down, and he comments on the fear of the individual. Also meant to be on Toy.
6. I’ve Been Waiting for You: David covers Neil Young. Dave Grohl guests on guitar.
7. I Would Be Your Slave: Overdramatic declaration of love over everything.
8. I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship: David awesomely covers the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
9. 5.15 The Angels Have Gone: A sort of cousin to "Never Let Me Down," with the guardian angels back.
10. Everyone Says ‘Hi’: The woman’s gone, but David’s more worried about himself; for her, everyone says hi.
11. A Better Future: David demands a better future from humanity.
12. Heathen (The Rays): David sees the material world destroy itself.

This is an incredibly strong, confident album, due in part to David’s recovered sense of direction (hours... purged his most dramatic thoughts about aging) and the return of Tony Visconti as producer for the first time since 1980's Scary Monsters. Some people see it as Bowie’s elder statesman album, which is a fair enough assessment. Very few rock acts stick around for as long as Bowie has; fewer still continue to change their music and not just sound like the old hits. After three albums of industrial-influenced music, David is now back in intellectual mode. Works for me. My Rating: 4 out of 5

REALITY (2003)
1. New Killer Star: Rather than a warning, David asserts that he’s going to jump into things his way, ready to be who he is. Great title pun. Best Song on the Album.
2. Pablo Picasso: David covers the Modern Lovers.
3. Never Get Old: The worry of age returns; David promises he’ll never get old. Almost like an older man’s version of "Rebel Rebel."
4. The Loneliest Guy: David makes an unconvincing assertion that he’s not lonely, but lucky. Haunting arrangements.
5. Looking for Water: David feels overwhelmed, but doesn’t quite care.
6. She’ll Drive the Big Car: An upbeat but lyrically sad examination of love unfulfilled.
7. Days: David admits he’s a selfish, dependent lover.
8. Fall Dog Bombs the Moon: David navigates the corporate streets.
9. Try Some, Buy Some: David covers the late George Harrison.
10. Reality: David welcomes reality into his life after his years of hazy unreality.
11.: Bring Me the Disco King: David worries that it all wasn’t worth it.

Unexpectedly, David revisits his most-maligned period--between Tonight and Black Tie White Noise--and mines it for musical inspiration. Somehow, he turns those shallow years into something profound, yet danceable. This is an underrated album that, because of its pop leanings, was dismissed by critics who were in love with Heathen. What they’ve failed to see is that this album is almost the exact mirror opposite of the previous album. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; Heathen is confident, sure, uniform, and soft. Working again with Tony Visconti, Bowie has fashioned Reality as the polar opposite: fearful, jumpy, ragged, and loud. I think it works better than the previous album, personally. My rating: 5 out of 5

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Cocaine Kate, Heroin Chic, and the Point of Models

I finally get the point of models. We've all looked at models that we thought were unattractive and wondered why they were being used to sell something. But sometime over the past year I've come to realize: a model's attractiveness is beside the point. It helps, but it's much more about how a model "performs." The way she moves her body, the way she expresses emotion (or lack of) on her face, the way she walks down a runway, the way she can pose. It's part of the arts of fashion and photography. So now I understand the artistic point of these models.

This is why I think it's pretty stupid to get all pissed off over the fashion industry selling a "negative body image." Again, it's not really the point. They're selling an artistic image, an aesthetic; think of a Versace gown like a painting, not something practical for everyday wear. I mean, do you get pissed when you see Duchamp and say "It doesn't look like a nude descending a staircase," or do you look at it for what it is: someone's artistic representation of their own inner feeling? I think if we were trained to think of fashion and photography more seriously as art, some of that weird animosity might go away. Which is why I now have a little respect for Gisele Bundchen or Heidi Klum or Adriana Lima; I think of them the same way I think of dancers. They're performing rather than being lauded for their beauty.

Anyway, this is why the "Cocaine Kate" pictures are a whole lot of hypocritical noise. She's unfortunate proof that these artistic aesthetics can't be applied to reality. I hated the Heroin Chic phase of fashion; I like my women with curves, not angles. And it wasn't easy to ignore, because media outlets (especially the more feminist ones) went nutso about "unrealistic body images" and such, and blamed men for it, which kinda sucked. Any woman reading this: I promise you, not all men like little waifs with big boobs. But because of the locker-room mentality of the American male (something which is now acceptable in public, rather than shameful, as it should be), guys don't want to admit it in front of a lot of other guys. Just the way we are: timid little boys at the edge of the locker-room shower, hoping that the coach won't notice if we put our clothes on over our gym uniforms and leave.

But back to Kate Moss. Wow, is the fashion industry hanging her out to dry, or what? Talk about a group that absolutely does not protect its own. She's not the only model who has ever used coke before; it's not even shocking, especially not from the woman who was the Pin-Up Girl for Heroin Chic. But it is unfortunate that she's a mother, and her actions don't always effect only her. It's a sad, personal thing for her. But the fashion industry is trying to put her on a cross at the same time that they're pretending to sympathize with her. They're shunning her so that no one else looks to closely at them and sees the cocktail glasses full of pills. They're "shocked" and "saddened" and other such phrases, and they're uttering these phrases with straight faces. Look how quickly they turn on the woman who once personified the Heroin Chic movement they so readily embraced. It's pathetic how they've crucified Kate Moss in the name of protecting themselves.

Because Kate broke the cardinal rule: DO NOT GET CAUGHT. And that's where their real concern is; the appearance of propriety. It could almost be a performance piece if it weren't so horribly real.